The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Modernity as Catastrophe



At the London Review of BooksHal Foster reviews the exhibition of Italian Futurism currently at the Guggenheim in New York:

Futurism wasn’t all bravado; it did have an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) of its own, which was to modernise the arts through a mimicry of the effects of new media, such as the adaptation of chronophotography and cinema to painting, photography and sculpture, or the application of the phonograph to musical performance. More ambitiously, the futurists sought to refashion the human sensorium along the lines of these new techniques of perception, and to this end they updated the ideas of synaesthesia, or the fusion of the senses, and kinaesthesia, or the mixing of bodies in motion and at rest. At the same time (and this is just one of many contradictions), the futurists were conservative stylistically; for all their nationalist pride, they relied on French sources, especially the divisionist brushstroke of neo-impressionist painting, which they adapted to themes of the modern city. Thus in Street Light (1909) Giacomo Balla offers the streetlamp as an improvement on the moon: both kinds of illumination are represented as waves of energy, but the artificial light dominates the natural one. So too in The City Rises (1910-11) Boccioni shows us the metropolis as a firestorm of colour greater than any in nature, where construction is difficult to distinguish from destruction; here the futurists thrill to modernity as catastrophe.

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